Egyptian galabiya to convertible shirt (and thoughts on cultural appropriation)

What I did:


This galabiya* was a hand-me-down from my mother-in-law, who herself had received it as a gift from a friend who bought it while traveling to Egypt a few decades ago. It was very comfortable in hot weather, and had great "lines," but there aren’t many occasions in my life where it makes sense to wear a galabiya. Every summer I realize that I need more light, long-sleeve shirts that are slightly more formal than a t-shirt. I like longer sleeve shirts because they reduce the need for sunscreen. So, I decided to change the galabiya into a shirt.

If you are concerned that my altering and wearing of the galabiya is cultural appropriation, scroll to the bottom of this page to read about what I'm doing to try to mitigate the culturally appropriative aspects of this project.

* At first I thought this garment was a kaftan. After reading a book on Egyptian dress, I think it's actually a galabiya, but I'm still not sure. Please refer to the cultural appropriation section below for more information.

Scroll through for thumbnail pictures, or click on any image for slideshow view.

Before: front view of the galabiya

Before: back view of the galabiya

Before: side view of the galabiya

Before: the galabiya had two pockets, but one of them had lost its lining.


I cut off the bottom part of the galabiya to make it into a shirt. I then used some of the excess fabric to re-line the pocket. (I did save the rest of the excess fabric, and will likely use it sometime down the road for patches or something else.)

I sewed on three buttons and loops to make the shirt convertible. Now, I can wear it unbuttoned, in its original wide-sleeved, tent shape. Or, I can wear it buttoned, with tapered sleeves formed by the sleeve buttons and an empire waist formed by a button cinching the shirt in the back.

After: front view, with buttons tapering the shirt at sleeves and upper back.

After: front view, with hands in the (now both functional) pockets.

After: side view of shirt with buttons buttoned.

After: back view of shirt, with back button cinching the shirt in at the upper back.

After: another back view of the shirt, cinched version.

After: closeup of the pocket with its replacement lining.

After: closeup of the sleeve button and button loop, unbuttoned.

After: closeup of the sleeve buttons, buttoned up to taper the sleeves.

After: closeup of the back button and button loop, unbuttoned.

After: closeup of back of shirt, with back button buttoned up to cinch at upper waist.

After: front view of shirt, unbuttoned, with the original wide sleeves and tent shape.

After: side view of shirt, unbuttoned for the wide sleeved tent shape.

After: back view of shirt, unbuttoned, with tent shape and wide sleeves.

A note on cultural appropriation

Is my altering this galabiya into a shirt and and wearing it cultural appropriation? I’m white, privileged, and from the United States. Egypt, where the galabiya is from, endured fighting and violence from French and British occupation and colonization. White people took for themselves Egyptian art and artifacts, such the beautiful funerary art from Ancient Egyptian tombs that we see in many museums here in the U.S. Currently, Egypt has less power on the world stage than the U.S. does, and (in general) Egypt’s citizens don’t enjoy the same access to resources and opportunities that U.S. citizens do. While the U.S. lacks consistency in respecting the human rights of its citizens (particularly women, people of color, and other marginalized groups), it’s still a better human rights situation here than in Egypt. None of this is fair. It's not right to take art without supporting the people who made the art.

As a member of a privileged group, it’s crucial for me to listen to the voices of marginalized people and cultures and try to be supportive rather than harmful.

Cultural appropriation in clothing and fashion has been going on so long that pretty much everything we wear can be traced to some form of oppressive transfer of clothing styles. I don’t think we need to eliminate all clothes influenced by or originating from cultures other than our own – that would be wasteful and would lead to a boring and less functional wardrobe – but I do think we should try to learn what we can about where our clothes came from and give credit and compensation to the cultures and places that invented the styles we wear.

Here is what little I know about the original cultural context of this galabiya: my mother-in-law told me that she had heard from her friend that it was a man’s garment. I got Andrea B. Rugh's book Reveal and Conceal: Dress in Contemporary Egypt (published 1986 by Syracuse University Press) from the library. "Galabiya" according to this book, is a general term for dress or robe, and there are many different styles of galabiyas, worn by both men and women. Based on the pictures and descriptions of the galabiyas worn by men in Egypt in the 1980s, I think that the garment is indeed a man's galabiya: it is very similar to a picture on page 14 of the book with the caption "typical rural folk male's galabiya." In particular, the neckline — which, when opened, is v-shaped, but can be closed with braided buttons — is identical, as is the wide sleeved shape. The women's galabiyas pictured elsewhere in the book are not as close a match. Also, on page 129, Rugh notes that dull stripes (like my galabiya's muted blue, tan, and white stripes) are common in men's clothes, while women's clothes are more likely to be flowered prints, bright colors, or black.

I think that my galabiya is more of a rural or "folk" style rather than an urban style: on pages 114 - 116, Rugh discuses urban style galabiyas such as the galabiya frangi (loose, but somewhat tighter than a traditional galabiya, and with a western-style shirt collar), and the galabiya scandarani (also tighter than a traditional galabiya, and with a mandarin collar). My galabiya's neckline is neither frangi nor scandarani, and looks more similar to the pictures of rural style galabiyas.

At first, I thought that what my mother-in-law had given me was a kaftan, not a galabiya. In the west, we normally call any loose, robe-like and vaguely (or actually) Middle Eastern/North African garment a "kaftan," so that's what my mother-in-law called it and that's what I called it, too. Rugh (p. 13) cites E.W. Lane's book Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (originally published 1860) as describing upper class Egyptian male dress in the 19th century as consisting of a long shirt-like garment, and over that a short vest called a "sidari," and over that a "kuftan" (translated as "robe"), and over the kuftan a "jubba" or over-robe, and with lots of variations in additional shawls, sashes, and head coverings. Rugh writes, though, that in the Egypt of the 1980s, the galabiya, rather than kuftan (which I am assuming is an alternate transliteration for kaftan) was the primary garment for rural men and working class urban men.There are no pictures of the traditional Egyptian kuftan in Rugh's book, so I can't compare a traditional Egyptian kaftan to a traditional Egyptian galabiya to see which my garment is. But, given that the pictured galabiya is very similar to my garment, and given that the time period that the book was written in is probably within 20 years of the time when my mother-in-law's friend bought the garment, I am going to call it a galabiya — though that's just my best guess, and I would be happy to be corrected by someone who knows more.

My mother-in-law’s friend purchased the galabiya in Egypt, supporting the local economy with her purchase and the money she spent on her stay. I would like to build on this support in order to offset any indirect profit I may receive from my work on the garment. Since I’m not selling the galabiya-shirt, and don’t plan to sell copies of it, I’m not directly profiting. But, as with all of the photos I post on my website, I hope to indirectly profit in that I hope people will like the looks of my alterations and hire me to do alteration work for them. Since it's conceivable that I may indirectly profit from my good fortune of receiving the galabiya, it makes sense for me to use my (and encourage you to use your) money in ways that could benefit Egyptian and Egyptian-American people.

To that end, I'm compiling a list of links to make it easier for my clients or visitors to my website to contribute financially to reputable non-profits/NGOs that are doing good work in Egypt, or to support Egyptian or Egyptian-American people who run small and creative/useful businesses, or to learn more by reading good books by Egyptian or Egyptian-American authors.

The list is pretty small right now, but I'll expand it as I explore more:

1. UNICEF aims to improve conditions and opportunities for children worldwide, including in Egypt.

2. I read and would somewhat recommend Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge, a novel by Ezzedine C. Fishere, an Egyptian novelist, columnist for the Washington Post, and current Senior Lecturer at Dartmouth. Almost all of the characters are Egyptian Americans, with diverse experiences and voices. It is not a "feel good" book: there is a lot of discrimination, bad luck, and misunderstanding. I usually read only "feel good" books because I find that I either can't "get into" darker books or that I have the opposite problem: I get too invested in characters' suffering and end up feeling sad and hopeless. I had the latter problem with this book. While there were light moments, it mostly made me sad. Overall, though, it was worth reading. I read it in the "Hoopla" ebook app from my local library.

Here are a few links to some news stories on cultural appropriation:

When Is It OK To Wear The Clothing Of Another Culture? - Goats and Soda (NPR)

The Dos and Don'ts of Cultural Appropriation - The Atlantic

If anyone has thoughts or suggestions on additional ways to mitigate this cultural appropriation, please contact me.